Gibbet: Grisly Punishments Explained

Throughout history, criminals have been subjected to punishments that now seem needlessly grisly and barbaric. Notable among these was the gibbet.

Popular in 18th-century England, gibbeting commonly involved locking criminals in human-shaped cages and hanging them up for display in public areas as a warning to others. The gibbet itself refers to the wooden structure from which the cage was hung.

In most cases, criminals were executed prior to being gibbeted. However, some unlucky victims were gibbeted alive and left to die. This brutal, gallows-style public execution killed its victims over the course of several days by causing them to die of exposure, dehydration, or starvation. Although the gibbet was meant to deter other would-be criminals from committing the same crime as the sentenced, if the monarch at the time was unpopular, this could backfire greatly.

What Was The Gibbet?

The reconstructed gallows-style gibbet at Caxton Gibbet, in Cambridgeshire, England. Source: Wikipedia

The gibbet’s origins can be traced back to the Medieval period, though it was commonly used in the 17th and 18th centuries. The device was a style of public execution, similar to the guillotine, the executioner’s block, an impalement stake, or hanging gallows. Placing a criminal’s body in a gibbet to be put on display was also known as “hanging in chains.”

Despite having been in use for decades, the practice of gibbeting was officially codified in England by the Murder Act of 1752. This act required those convicted of murder to be either gibbeted or dissected, though the punishment was also used for traitors, robbers, highwaymen, and pirates.

Notorious Gibbet Executions

Captain Kidd, who was tried and executed for piracy, hanging in chains. Source: Wikipedia

A number of legendary figures were executed by gibbet, including the infamous pirate Captain Kidd, who was hung in chains in London in 1701 and left hanging there as a warning to other would-be pirates. By leaving dead bodies hanging from the gibbet, law enforcement believed that other would-be criminals would be deterred from committing similar crimes.

Interestingly, the victims of gibbeting were almost always men. Female corpses were in high demand from surgeons and anatomists, so female criminals were dissected rather than gibbeted.

The Spectacle of Gibbeting

Oddly enough, the gibbeting of a criminal was considered to be a great spectacle. Excited crowds would gather to see it, sometimes amounting to tens of thousands of people. However, there were notable times when gibbeting backfired on an unpopular monarch. In the early 14th century under the rule of King Edward II, rebels Henry of Montfort and Henry of Wylynton were drawn and hanged, and their bodies were displayed via gibbet near Bristol. Given that Edward II was not well regarded by his people, the Henrys’ bodies were instead made into relics and venerated as symbols of rebellion against the king. Some rumors even circulated that miracles had occurred in proximity to the gibbet that displayed their bodies.

Why Hanging in Chains Fell Out of Favor

Combe Gibbet, a replica gibbet in Berkshire. Source: Wikipedia

While many viewed gibbeting as a sort of macabre spectacle, living near a gibbet was an unpleasant experience. Authorities intentionally made gibbeted bodies difficult to take down by hanging them from 30-foot-tall posts. On one occasion, they even studded a post with 12,000 nails to keep it from being removed.

Gibbets often wouldn’t be removed until years after the bodies had rotted and had been devoured by bugs and birds, becoming nothing more than skeletons. The rotting corpses would often stink so badly that nearby residents would have to shut their windows to keep the wind from carrying the bodies’ stench into their homes. Furthermore, gibbets made a chilling creaking, clanking sound as they twisted and swayed in the wind—a sound that was certainly eerie enough to spook those who lived nearby.

Logistical Difficulties and Public Outcry

Executions by gibbet were also logistically difficult to stage. Blacksmiths who were tasked with making the cages often had a hard time doing so, since they often had no prior knowledge of the structures. Consequently, the cages’ designs varied greatly. Many objected to the practice on the grounds that it was barbaric. Some Christians also objected to it, arguing that displaying criminals’ bodies posthumously was disrespectful.

Despite all of this, authorities insisted on using this grisly form of execution for decades. At the time, they felt that the key to stopping crime was making its punishment as appalling as possible. They argued that punishments like gibbeting showed would-be criminals that breaking the law was far from worthwhile. However, despite the appalling nature of gibbeting, crime in England failed to decline while the practice was in use. This is perhaps part of the reason why it was formally abolished in 1834.

Legacy of the Gibbet

Still, remnants of the practice can be found throughout England. More than a dozen gibbet cages remain in the country, most of which are in small museums. Furthermore, many criminals lent their names to the places where they were gibbeted. As a result, a number of England’s towns and regions have roads and features that bear the names of gibbeted criminals. These places serve as reminders of the disturbing punishment that the country once embraced.

Conclusion

The gibbet stands as a testament to the brutal and often macabre history of criminal punishment. While it was intended to serve as a deterrent, the practice of gibbeting ultimately became a grim spectacle that highlighted the cruelty and barbarity of the times. The eventual abolition of gibbeting in 1834 marked a significant shift towards more humane forms of punishment, reflecting evolving societal values and attitudes towards justice and retribution.

FAQs

  1. What was the purpose of the gibbet? The gibbet was used to display the bodies of executed criminals as a deterrent to others, demonstrating the severe consequences of committing crimes.
  2. Were women ever subjected to gibbeting? Female criminals were rarely gibbeted because their bodies were in high demand for medical dissection.
  3. Why did gibbeting fall out of favor? Gibbeting fell out of favor due to its logistical difficulties, the unpleasant experience for nearby residents, and the changing attitudes towards more humane punishments.
  4. How long were bodies left hanging in gibbets? Bodies could be left hanging in gibbets for years until they had decomposed to skeletons, often causing a significant stench and eerie noises.
  5. Are there any remnants of gibbets in modern England? Yes, more than a dozen gibbet cages remain in England, mostly preserved in small museums as historical artifacts.

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